Mobile Positioning – A Useful Tool or a Breach of Privacy?

Thanks, AM for a thought-provoking post.

Ten years ago, few would have imagined that almost every person on the street would be walking around with a cell phone – or two. Even five years ago, few would have imagined that cell phones could be more than simple communication devices: location based services (LBS) for phone-users such as GPS-assisted navigation, location-based business searches and more are becoming even more mainstream. LBS are possible because mobile phones must be in constant communication with nearby cell towers to be able to receive calls or other information. Knowing the location of towers, the time and the strength of the “ping” (communicated signal), one can calculate the location of the cell phone user at a given moment. Newer phones, particularly “smart phones”, have built-in GPS chips that give even more precise and rapid mobile positions.

Mobile positioning, however, is becoming increasingly used in less traditional ways that extend beyond simple navigation-based services. Cell phone companies are selling locational information to parents, emergency response services, governments and the police (for investigative purposes). Verizon, for instance, offers a “Chaperone” service, whereby “parents can set up a ‘geofence’ around […] a few city blocks and receive an automatic text message if their child, holding the cellphone, travels outside that area” (Nakashima 2007). While this example in and of itself raises many controversial issues of privacy, the scope of the controversy is small in comparison to the more ‘professional’ uses of geospatial information.

In the monumental O.J. Simpson case in the late 1990s, engineers, on the fly, were able to triangulate Simpson’s position and movement patterns using his cell phone pings (Brandt 2004). This was the first major use of mobile positioning for any other reason than to provide cell service and many argue the point at which more interest grew in the power of LBS. The evolution of the use of mobile positioning for non-communicative uses has continued. In 2006 when a family in Oregon disappeared on a road trip, emergency services used a message sent to the father’s cell phone to locate his stranded vehicle (Reardon 2006). However, the most publicly known use of this technology has been of late, in a murder/disappearance case that has been swarming the news of late and caught my attention.

On July 15, 2008, 2-year old Caylee Marie Anthony was reported as being missing for a month by her mother, Casey Anthony. Dubious information surrounding the disappearance of the child has led authorities to investigate Casey for murder charges, and mobile positioning has been a key investigative tool. Authorities accessed the records and discussions of Casey’s cell phone calls prior to Caylee’s disappearance and used the cell phone pings in the time around those calls to delineate a search area for what they believed would be the child’s body. The story has gained momentum, as thousands of concerned citizens banded together in October to search for Caylee’s body in this area. (Orlando Sentinel ND)

These uses of mobile technology ten years ago would have been unconventional, but are becoming increasingly more mainstream – a situation that raises a lot of concerns. While it is obvious that mobile positioning is an incredibly powerful tool, its use is of concern for individual privacy rights. Moreover, as the information related to mobile positioning and GPS technology is highly personal and real-time the ownership of this information and its availability to institutions is a hot debate. Who owns geospatial information and what they choose to do with this information is a key issue in geospatial information ethics. In a worst case scenario, the image that readily comes to mind is a “Big Brother” type of society in which geospatial technology can be used to track the movements of individuals (think of the “Chaperone” service gone wrong), spy on their activities by linking this information to cameras and other recognition technology and consequently be used against them. This possibility, unfortunately, is not far off. In terms of the judicial use, as in the Caylee Anthony case, at what point is the use of this information considered too much or unethical? And as this data is considered by many to be unbiased and veracious, what then, when hackers and other technology manipulators start to interfere? To prevent this situation, governments must place stringent privacy laws on industry and think ahead of the current technological developments.

Ellen Nakashima. 2007. Cellphone Tracking Powers on Request. Secret Warrants Granted Without Probable Cause Friday, November 23, 2007; Page A01.

Andrew Brandt. 2004. Privacy Watch: Soon, Your Cell Phone May Be Tracking You. Feb 25, 2004.

Marguerite Reardon. 2006. Turning cell phones into lifelines. ZDNet News: Dec 5, 2006.

Orlando Sentinel. ND. The Caylee Anthony Case WebsiteOrlando Sentinel. Last Accessed Today.

One Response to “Mobile Positioning – A Useful Tool or a Breach of Privacy?”

  1. Ben says:

    i recently lost my phone and i think a tracking system for these perpuses would be great. i would love to get my phone back. and if the police are tracking your phone you probably being tracked in otherways to and probably deserve the track for the safty of our comunity.